Why Elden Ring’s Formula “Just Works”: The secret behind the success of Elden Ring and Souls in general, and why it’s so difficult for other developers to replicate it. This is an article exploring how FromSoftware sets new standards by simply sticking to the old and true, and scaling back on features rather than adding more, boldly applying “less is more” to gaming.
Elden Ring: The Secret to its Success & Why it actually “Just Works”
Why “FromSoftware Difficulty” is a Thing
To understand where Demon’s Souls lies in the development landscape, we must first know how it came to be and how originally it struggled. At the time that Demon’s Souls was released, the industry standard was that games would hand-hold the player through multiple tutorials to make access to each game mechanic straight forward and simple, and give ample warning of possible negative consequences of actions. The ultimate evolution of this thinking around game design was the so-called “Super Guide” in Super Mario Bros, also released in 2009, where if the player got stuck the game would play itself.
Along came Demon’s Souls, stubbornly challenging these conventions by presenting a game that not only lacked tutorials, but would actively punish the player for dying by making the game harder. The decision behind this was not due to masochism, the game’s director Hidetaka Miyazaki assured us, but rather the objective was to provide a true sense of accomplishment, and minimize over-communication from the developers to and between players.
As we all know now, the game went on to become an “underground success” and eventually the springboard for Dark Souls and its very own “Souls-like” subgenre of Action RPGs. So why was this so successful?
The Over-Communication Issue
Gaming has gone through many phases, but for the purposes of this article we will single out the pivot point that was Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls V changed RPGs and open world games in general by giving players an immense amount of freedom of movement, character progression and interaction choices. If we simplify the success of the game, it can be boiled down to its key features:
- Scale: An Impressively vast map with previously unseen amounts of content and exploration. This in turn introduced Fast Travel to the series, and removed “Acrobatics” and “Athletics” skills to replace them with a sprint button.
- Distraction Model: This is the same model used in Elder Scrolls Online, where rather than following a strict quest log or getting everything from a board, you pick up items that initiate quest or find quests by discovering locations or talking to NPCs. Some quests will send you toward the edges of the map and you will gleam a new objective while on your way, then stop and pick it up before continuing.
- Epic “random” Boss Fights: Dragon fights acted as a world boss in an mmo, breaking up normal exploration with intense music, sound effects and dragon-themed rewards
- Complex NPC development: Skyrim featured cities and towns with an amazing degree of NPC detail, including their schedules, assigned properties and beds, relations, and reactions to events. This gave the player a great degree of participation into the game’s world, creating fantastic immersion.
Since the release of Skyrim, many games have adopted and adapted elements of its success. The Witcher 3 adopted map and NPC questline ideas and gave them even further depth. Dragon’s Dogma merged some Monster Hunter into the open world formula and maximized the “World Event” boss fight element, Fallout 4 doubled down on the distraction model, and so many games picked up from here and advanced the “Open World” genre.
However, with each new game came a new “feature” and with each iteration new implementations of “player feedback” slowly took over the soul of the genre. As with anything, R&D and marketing have a curious effect on products: eventually, everything is over-optimized and so much feedback has been taken in that the sales are through the roof because the new features SHOULD make everyone happy… but somehow, nobody is ACTUALLY happy.
This is the “over-communication” that Hidetaka Miyazaki so smartly pinpointed in 2008. By giving your audience “exactly what they ask for“, you risk losing the mystique of the unknown and the joy of discovery and ultimately of success.
If a game tells you exactly everything that must be done to complete it, you are prevented from having to think for yourself, relegating you to executing a strategy rather than formulating one. You go from a grand General devising a plan for the battlefield, to just the liutenant applying tactics
Going back to the Roots of Gaming
Of course, to have a commercially successful game, it’s not as easy as “well don’t explain things”. As Gen x and Millenial gamers get older, many players have little time or energy to invest into fully unpacking a convoluted or complicated game, and rather the ease of access from the many features implemented in what is now widely known as the “Ubisoft Open World Model“. However, Elden Ring has proven that there is appetite for something else, and the reason for that is not just rooted in nostalgia, but actually “tried and true” gaming models of years past.
Many times people look at me strange because I know that the people playing Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and now Elden Ring also play Divinity Original Sin, Baldur’s Gate, Pathfinder and Monster Hunter. These genres are so far apart in gaming market segmentation terms that Marketers are often puzzled by the overlap. I am not, simply because I actually play all these games and they all share a base commonality that can be traced back to a board game and the comfort and simplicity of optional complexity.
When you play a board game, the instructions are often on a separate manual to be referenced, or attached to item and skill descriptions. There are no popups telling you how everything works, or things warning you that if you talk to this NPC something bad will happen. It’s up to you and your party to decide house rules and then your imagination and understanding of the world moves things along to unexpected locations.
FromSoftware’s “formula” is simply to act as a Dungeon Master, presenting situations for you to resolve, and giving you the items and cards that you must piece together into builds and world descriptions. It lays out board pieces with some drawn hints of points of interest that will populate not via a quest log or overworld guidance, but by your proximity and interaction.
Why the Elden Ring formula is not a formula
It would be apparent to anyone who has played the souls series that FromSoftware recycles and reuses not just assets but also concepts. Almost as if the artist is creating the same game with different levels of refinement, and we are seeing the evolution from sketch to masterpiece as they learn their tools and obtain new colors to paint with. Life, Death, Birth and the undead, Roots and Fire, Burning and Ash, Blind maidens, Alien Gods and unholy clerics. It all seems to follow the same “formula”, except it does not.
Unlike the many quality of life features in the AAA formula, these progressing elements of FromSoftware’s narrative and combat design aren’t something that can be taken as is and applied to a different game or genre and have them work. There’s a reason that nobody can out-do From when it comes to soulslike: these elements are quirks or signatures rather than simple features. And deconstructing the actual souls-like formula is a lot harder as it’s not based on customer feedback but the innate passion of the developer.
Why Elden Ring will change gaming
The unexpected commercial success of Elden Ring has elevated FromSoftware from obscure or niche studio with successful 2-5 million copies sold to AAA juggernaut pushing 12 million copies in a month. This is a huge wake-up call to the industry regarding player priorities and appreciation.
There was shocked commentary from other developers who could not understand how the graphically inferior and seemingly obscure and clunky Elden Ring design could outperform their carefully crafted worlds and narratives. There’s a simple answer to this: we simply haven’t seen it before
Skyrim changed gaming by kickstarting a revolution in Open World games that eventually led to the over-optimized Assassin’s Creed formula. Elden Ring is changing gaming again by reminding developers that players want to be challenged not just with difficult combat, but with a demand for their attention and a sense of commonality with other users that cannot be replicated if the game is delivered in a sealed vacuum and is completely self-sufficient.
As I told Edge Magazine in 2015: “The accessible hardcore game can happen, it’s served as an obscure masterpiece with a side of wiki“. The “wiki” concept doesn’t specifically refer to my website. It refers to the common feeling of “community vs dungeon master” that can only be achieved when a game has secrets to unravel. Youtube, Reddit and Discords are set up to explore the mechanics, lore and concepts of the game and chart its most obscure depths.
This level of community interaction generates a true community that is working together and have many discovery or surprise experiences in common. It also allows for the external sharing of ideas, checklists, and tools that complement the game and give the option to have the accessibility features of other models available, without making them the game’s default.
I played through the entire game pre-launch and discovered many secrets that I recorded into guides for the youtube channel or the wiki. Yet I still see hundreds of people doing those discoveries themselves each day and come to share their joy at the achievement, because they also had the option to discover it for themselves and not be simply told by a quest log that this is what you should do.
Surely, many players will prefer to have clear guidance or a checklist in-game. I personally enjoy Assassin’s Creed and the easy feel of having finished a zone 100% knowing I didn’t miss anything. However, I enjoy discovering and marking things by hand on my custom map so much more, simply because I feel like I actually had to think of it myself and do it myself.
In the end, that’s what it’s about: FromSoftware’s development treats me like a capable, thinking individual and challenges me to discover and unravel their game and stubbornly refuse to answer all my questions, so I have to think for myself and outsmart them. And I love it.
What this means for Souls-likes
We had already seen a subset of action rpgs be rebranded to “soulslike” for their vague or prevalent correlations to the “feeling” of souls. These games were usually indie in nature, from the 2-man team behind Ska Studio’s Salt and Sacrifice to the unexpected success of Remnant From the Ashes, no AAA studio has yet attempted to truly compete with FromSoftware in their domain. I predict that, once the shellshock wears off, all that is going to change.
You may see Elden Ring influences shape really large titles, such as Bethesda’s upcoming Elder Scrolls 6, and the rumored Dragon’s Dogma 2. You will also see a lot of industry commentary on the innovative applications of action combat to open world games and the true RPG character development souls experience may indeed make it to other upcoming large titles from bigger studios.
Whether these approaches will be successful or not will largely depend on the understanding of one simple concept:
Souls isn’t a product, it’s an art. And understanding when not to give your audience what they ask for is the true key to success.
So tell us, what do you think makes Elden Ring tick? Why did you buy it? Why do you enjoy it? Will you buy DLC for the game? How about a sequel? What aspects of Elden Ring would you like to see in other games? Tells us all about it in the comments!
Also check out our Top Soulslikes to Play this year, Best RPGs and best CRPGs to check out!